ALEXA CAN ALREADY order you an Uber, control your smart home devices, and keep you company. She’s about to learn much better DJ skills, save you six bucks a month on streaming music, and possibly even change the way you listen to music in your house.
Amazon Music Unlimited, a beefed-up subscription service built to compete with the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, launches today. It’s cheaper than those big-name services—for many users, at least—and it features clever voice control with the company’s Echo speakers.
If you’re using Music Unlimited on an Amazon Echo, Tap, or Dot, the service only costs $4 a month. To use it on anything else—mobile devices, your computer, a Fire TV stick, or even Sonos speakers—the pricing falls more in line with Spotify or Apple Music. It’s $8 per month if you’re an Amazon Prime member and $10 per month if you aren’t.
Is There an Echo in Here?
At face value, entering a streaming-music market that has established Goliaths like Spotify and Apple divvying up more than 50 percent of the market share may sound like Fire Phone 2.0. In fact, it may seem even crazier: People generally don’t switch the music services they’ve bought into every two years. They drive tent stakes in the ground in the form of playlists and saved albums, then camp out for the long haul.
But Amazon’s secret weapon isn’t just lower prices. Its popular Echo lineup of voice-assistant products are a huge draw, and because of Echo and Alexa, Amazon Music Unlimited is aiming at a different target than its competitors. Traditional mobile and desktop users aren’t an afterthought, but Amazon is hoping the in-home experience is the huge hook for millions of new subscribers.
To be sure, the service has slick mobile and desktop interfaces. There’s also an (optional) offline tool that auto-downloads music recommendations to your device in the background—a handy feature to ensure you’ve got something to listen to on the train or plane.
But the far more compelling UI for the service is invisible. Or maybe it looks like an Echo speaker.
Amazon Music Unlimited’s marquee feature is the way you use spoken commands and the Echo speakers to dive into it, and it shows how Amazon is trying to transform the household listening experience. According to Amazon, unlocking Alexa’s full potential as an in-house DJ was a two-step process.
“The first thing we wanted to do was provide that full-catalog music service… that’s a no-brainer,” says Amazon Music VP Steve Boom, noting the company has been talking to music labels about this effort for a long time. “But looking at how people were listening to music in the Alexa environment, it’s a different experience than doing it on their phone or on their laptop. You talk to her naturally, you talk as if you’d talk to a friend about music. It forces you to reimagine how people interact with a music service.”
The Request Line Is Open
As you’d expect, you can just ask for a specific album, artist, or genre, and Alexa will start spinning. But Amazon has also employed the voice assistant’s machine-learning smarts to get much more granular and helpful. You can request genre- or mood-specific music from a certain era, to fit a certain mood, request the latest single from an artist, or say “Alexa, play music” to start a dynamic playlist based on your listening habits.
The service even aims to one-up Shazam. If you don’t know the name of the Das EFX song stuck in your brain, just ask Alexa to “play the song that goes ‘I diggedy dot my i’s and cross my tiggedy-t’s bro.’”
Boom says the voice features for the new music service required significant investments in deep machine learning, creating new metadata for the entire universe of music, and verifying information.
“Even something like playing a new song, that’s not easy,” Boom explains. “If you say, ‘play Adele’s new single,’ it’s now the third single off the album. All the songs have the exact same release date, so we had to train Alexa to get smarter about looking at songs that are rising the charts and are the newest songs being played on the radio.”
Amazon is also trying to replicate the liner notes experience with a “Side By Side” feature. Like a Criterion Collection for albums, it plays spoken-word introductions to album tracks from an artist, giving anecdotes about the song that follows. This certainly won’t be the service’s most-used feature—and it’s only available for a few albums—but it speaks to one of Amazon’s throwback goals.
“One of the things that’s been lost in the age of digital music has been music’s primacy in the home,” Boom says. “It’s been moved to the personal device. Music is finding its way back into the home, and we wanted to try to recreate that [liner notes] experience via voice.”
This isn’t Amazon’s first stab at a streaming-music service, but it’s certainly its most ambitious and compelling effort. A couple of years ago, Amazon Prime Music launched, and it has about two million songs on demand. It’s a decent extra for Prime subscribers, but it offers a fraction of the music the major streaming services do.
Music Unlimited also won’t replace Amazon Prime Music altogether. Amazon Prime Music lives on, giving Prime members the ability to stream a couple million songs as part of their Prime subscription. For an extra $4 to $8 a month, Prime subscribers get access to the Music Unlimited catalog, which is at least 10 times bigger.
Amazon won’t offer a more-specific number than Music Unlimited having “tens of millions of songs,” but it’s a mammoth leap forward. Spotify and Apple Music have around 30 million songs each, and one would assume Amazon is trying to match that reach.
But Amazon’s aim isn’t just putting a dent in Spotify or Apple Music—even though the combination of a lot of music for a lower price with deep Alexa integration could help make that happen. The greater goal is redefining the way we listen to music in our homes. After a decade of tech companies rallying around a “mobile first” mentality, Amazon’s one-two punch of music and Alexa is focusing on “home-first.”
“Historically, the home market has been driven by smartphones,” Boom says. “Amazon has established a really strong position there, and voice is the interface for that environment.”